a Kind of Refugee / 27.09.2022
Going to the US completely changed my sense of time. I brought the urgency of war with me and returned with a sense of continuity, stretching back to before February 24.
The night before flying to the US I watched President Zelenskiy’s address in honor of Ukraine’s Independence Day. Actually it was a short film—his speech from the center of Kyiv intercut with an impressionistic story of what Ukrainians have lived through over the past half year. I cried at minute 5, again at minute 6, and then when the sky exploded behind the young heroine who weaves through wreckage, suffering, and the courageous defense of our country.
Listening to the familiar sound of the air raid siren, watching a sea of cars slowly crawling westward, scenes from a crowded, darkened train station, anxious women and children huddled in a basement, the measured warmth and focus of ordinary citizens-become-armed forces, I saw my own experiences of the past six months. This story of transformation, from uncertainty and fear for one’s life to accepting your duty and power to defend your home, is mine (you’ve read it).
I grew up watching television and Hollywood movies. That’s what kids did in the US suburbs in the late 20th century. I imagined myself in those scenes and then suffered from the constant disappointment that I was nothing like any of those TV characters. It was a culture of endless aspiration and perpetual falling short. Whatever I was did not seem relevant enough to really take interest in, like that was a private matter best kept to oneself.
And now: the President of Ukraine on TV is telling my story. While millions of other Ukrainians can also say, “This is my story.” How remarkable and strange. This is not a matter of identification, of seeing something outside you and thinking, “I want to be like that.” It is recognition of something that has happened to us.
This is the difference between the culture of projection and anticipation that has taken firm hold of Western minds and discourse and the culture of action in real time that Ukraine is now demonstrating to the whole world as another possibility.
This is really happening is the lesson the war has taught me that I never want to forget. Now when I get a hint of a feeling, it must be addressed. You can’t wish it away. How I longed to keep sleeping in the wee hours of morning on February 24. Was that sound really an explosion? I don’t know what to do. Can’t I just go back to sleep? Maybe it will pass? No, that is what it means to be an adult—to accept that this is really happening. And what you do or don’t do matters. And whatever it is, it’s on your conscience.
Under the duress of war in Ukraine we don’t make decisions from a place of leisurely deliberation: Who do I want to be? If I want to be like this, then what do I have to do to become it? The kind of reverse cause–effect logic where you first imagine the desired result and then figure out how to get there may make sense in developing procedures that demand coordinated action where timing and sequence matter. But it has no place in politics.
When talking about ethical—and political—human beings (as opposed to human-like automatons or elements of a system) the fundamental question is “who am I?” The answer is refined through action in one’s environment: how you respond to a situation reveals something about who you are.
Perhaps this is why I was so disheartened by the ending of Don’t Look UP, watching those nice, reasonable, intelligent folks—the ones that most resembled me—talking about how they like their coffee and admitting that convenient-store apple pie actually tastes alright as they await the end of the world. Do I want to spend the last moments of Earth’s existence sitting around a table making chitchat?
Americans have lost a sense of finality and timeliness. And this impedes action.
My Ukrainian friends don’t believe me when I say that Americans don’t talk about politics in casual conversation. “What do they talk about then?” they ask in serious wonder. What we’re going to eat or where. Whether you like this or that. Are you comfortable? How do you feel? What do you want to do?
I have one American friend who likes to debate. Every time I visit he brings up some controversial issue—let’s discuss! I enjoy those discussions, but they almost always end in an impasse: one person citing sources to support their position, the other bringing up personal experience or other sources to argue their point. There is no common measure: the sources are different and they don’t match up. You have to then argue about the legitimacy of each source, recheck the statistics and find out where they come from. Or it’s your word against mine, but if we respect everyone’s personal subjective experience then who’s to say mine is more valid than yours or vice versa.
This is the ground that russia is trying to play on when it makes outrageous claims that the bodies with tied hands and signs of torture discovered in Izyum in mass graves after its occupying forces retreat are not evidence of war crimes committed by its soldiers but “faked” by Ukrainians to make russia look bad. When it comes to claiming that a vast majority of people on occupied Ukrainian territory voted to join russia, there is no attempt to feign legitimacy. This is a show of the deepest scorn for democratic institutions and citizens’ participation in government.
That same American friend has been reading my letters from Ukraine. He recently said he can’t understand why Putin is letting the Ukrainians make advances against the powerful Russian military. He trusts that Putin is a good leader who cares about the Russian people (because that’s what his Russian immigrant friend in the US says). From his perspective, these are just two friends with different stories that don’t match up.
What is utterly disappointing in the two endings of Don’t Look UP is the refusal of American culture to deal with danger. One group, let’s call them the left, seeks meek acceptance of its own demise in the creature comforts of food and family, while the other, which conjures the right, dreams up a project to get rich, takes a risk, and then escapes to save itself. The world is doomed: BOTH camps are ready to throw it all away rather than caring about and taking care of it.
As a young person, well into my 20s, I never believed that what I think or do has any bearing on the structure, function, or actions of my country and its government (like launching the second Iraq War). I had no idea that the world is mine. Not in the sense of to have and to take, but mine to take care of. And that if I don’t, nobody else will do it for me. In fact I was convinced that the world was already taken care of, that my job was to find my place in it, and whether I did or not was merely a matter of my own personal un/happiness.
American culture does not encourage asking questions. Criticizing is ok. Voicing your opinions—oh god, yes. But asking questions is forward, impolite, nosy. Even if not perceived as a threat or challenging the other’s authority, it comes across as awkward, like something a sophisticated person would never do. Why didn’t you google it?
Leaving your home is a very serious act, something that should not be undertaken unless you absolutely must. What if my exodus to Ukraine at age 25 to the land my family had left behind was also a sort of cop-out? It was easier(!) for me to move halfway round the world from the place I had grown up to a place where I knew next to nobody and knew next to nothing about, than to ask questions of my parents and the greater Ukrainian diaspora community about that land and their lives before. It was far easier to abandon my fellow Americans than to ask them: who are you and what are we doing here together?
PS Yesterday I received an unexpected message from someone I haven’t seen in years asking what kind of tourniquets Ukraine’s defenders need most. We chatted a bit about logistics and how he can support Ukraine’s fight for freedom. Then I asked: how does American democracy look from your perspective? It was the beginning of a long and insightful conversation.
I’m grateful to you, readers, for your attention and support as I write through my experiences in Ukraine and where I come from in the Ukrainian-American diaspora. What questions do you have?
I promise to answer every one asked through the end of this month.
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for the record, i have no regrets today about moving to and staying in ukraine. in fact it’s the first time that what i’ve devoted my entire life to seems relevant to more than a handful of people. i do regret not asking more questions when i was young, holding my elders to account for what they did to make the world the way it was. i also regret not taking more interest in my peers, who would have been my partners in taking care of this world.